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3 Alpine passes in 3 days

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3 Alpine passes in 3 days

Old 05-27-19, 10:20 PM
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3 Alpine passes in 3 days

It is a beautiful sunny day in Bourg d’Oisans, a tourist town in a valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks. Think Lake Tahoe without the lake and only 3,500 people. It is a famous stop on the Tour de France as it is just below the Alpe d’Heuz and the road to the Galibier pass and other high peaks.

I am resting after 3 hard days of climbing over 3 alpine passes. I started in Pinerolo in Italy on a rainy day that started clear enough to see the peaks that surround Pinerolo. By the time I left, the clouds had again obscured the view and it was raining.

I started climbing as soon as I left Pinerolo. I rode up into forests and along the Chisone River, whose valley I would follow. When the clouds would clear a bit, I could see snow topped peaks. It slowly cleared, though the wind remained steady, and I was now seeing mountains behind mountains behind the rushing river. It was impressive. I rode uphill for 4+ hours, taking mountain photo after river picture (while resting). It was hard. I stopped often, sometimes no more than a few hundred feet further up the hill. But, I kept turning the pedals and by about 3pm I made it to Pragaleto, my stop for the night,

Pragaleto is a ski resort whose season had passed. The town was deserted. I was the only one staying at a campground with chalets, bungalows, and lots of amenities, all closed for the season. The woman who checked me in said everyone there goes on vacation after April. There was a small store open where I bought pasta for dinner and the next day’s biking food.

The next morning was sunny but very cold with frost on the roofs of the surrounding chalets. I waited to hit the store for some fresh bread and a bit later to take down a €1 cup of coffee. My goal this day was Briançon, 2 passes and 28 miles away.

The first pass, Sestriere, was 6 miles of steady uphill consistent enough to find an easy rhythm. I was now “in the mountains” and The cloudless sky was pierced with numerous high peaks fronted by large tree covered hills. I remained along the Chisone, adding both sound and fury to the tableaux. All around, ahead and behind were snowy peaks. Several were connected in long chains of jagged tops below a fiercely blue sky. The effect was breathtaking. Which is good because I was definitely breathing hard.

I was in the deserted ski resort of Sestriere around 11:15. After refueling a bit, I headed down into another valley rimmed with white peaks. The 7 mile descent not only went by fast but dropped me 500 vertical feet below my starting elevation. The bottom was Cesana Torinese where I headed up after crossing the Torrente Ripa.

It was now the middle of the day and hot in the full sun. I got into my lowest gear and began grinding up toward the Montgènevre Pass 6 miles further and 1500 feet higher than Cesana. It was a hard climb up switchbacks to set of tunnels. Luckily, the new tunnel was for cars but the old tunnels were for bikes. I rode in several naturally lit galleries (tunnels with open sides) all alone. It is a bit eerie to be in the semi-darkness of a tunnel with stunning views of rocks and trees in the mountain quiet.

I rejoined the main road at the top of this incline and a worker told the top wasn’t far and it was mostly flat to there. For once, this information turned out to be true and I cruised into the deserted ski resort of Montgènevre around 2 pm. It was now all downhill to Briançon, my stop for the night.

The downhill was not only very welcome but it featured clusters of peaks dappled with both snow and sun. The road was, again, deserted and I coasted down at my leisure, stopping when the urge struck without concern for traffic. After a good long descent, I switchbacked down the side of a cliff overlooking the valley of the Durance River and got my first look at Briançon, the highest city in France. It’s nestled below towering white peaks next to the river. Zigzagging down toward it was a very rewarding sight. In some of the switchbacks, I had to brake hard to stay behind the cars in front of me!

My place for the night was with Steve, his partner Julia and Jonah, their just talking 2 year old. They live at the very top of the old walled town in the historic barracks of the fort. Steve, Julia and 11 other family got together, bought the old derelict building, and in the intervening 5 years cleaned it and built flats in it. Their view of the mountains is unparalleled. Truly magnificent.

Both Steve and Julie are nurses. He works in a psychiatric ward and she is a visiting nurse. They live almost communal lives with their neighbors. Before we ate, 2 other youngsters and one mom had dinner in their flat. After they were done, Steve spooned up a fabulous vegetable stew with a sort of Thai curry sauce that was very good. After eating Steve and I went over my next day’s route and we mapped some changes that he recommended. While these looked good, they also added another 1000 feet of climbing.

Steve left at 6:30 the next morning and I got up say an revoir and merci. Julie got up when Jonah stirred and we ate breakfast together. I knew I had a long hard day ahead of me so I was up and out before 9am. I found the store Julia suggested, loaded up on food (and my first pan au chocolat), and started up the grade to the Col de Lautaret 18 miles and 2400 elevated feet away.

My route followed the main road which was busy for the first few miles. I had mapped several diversions away from the main road but they all seemed to require even more climbing. After having to dig hard to rejoin the main route after one, I decided simply to follow the main road. Once the traffic thinned, it was as if I was on a bike path. Vehicles, including bike riders, passed about every 3 to 4 minutes.

I was following the Guisane River, which would go all the way up to the pass. There were astounding snow-covered peaks to my left and dry, almost desert-like, mountains to my right. In between was the river and trees. At times, I was riding in a wide valley that reminded me of Canada’s stunning Icefield Parkway and Montana’s Glacier National Park. I have no words left to describe just how beautiful this was.

It is possible that my emotions were impacted by the effort required to do this climb. Every kilometer was a sign announcing how many more kilometers there were to the top (they started at 32), the elevation at the top and at the current spot, and the percentage of gain in the next kilometer. Psychologically, these signs helped take my mind off the distance. I was stopping frequently to just stand there and soak it all in, rest, and take photos. I’m sure I took the same photo over and over, but I didn’t care.

I had figured that I would get to the pass about 1pm. In actually, it was about 1:20 or 4 hours of climbing. There is a couple cafes at the top and I stopped to rest, revel in my accomplishment, eat, and put in more clothes for the coast down. It would be downhill the rest of the way to Bourg d’Oisans, my stop for the night.

I was again on my own on the steep switchbacks going down the other side where the Romanche River begins gather momentum for its run down the mountains. I was exhilarated making my way down, wowing out loud at each new vista that I saw. Not far from the top, I was passed a group of uniformed professional riders out training with a climb up to Montgènevre. One or two answered my wave.

One problem with the descent was tunnels. Near the town of La Greve I hit my first one. It was 600 meters of sheer terror. It was narrow (barely room for two cars), dank, and dark. Going through it was otherworldly. In the moment, it was like I was in the passageway between life and death. I heaved a sigh of relief that I went through it without another vehicle present. There were other tunnels near La Greve that, while always scary, were not quite as bad as that first one. There were no cars in my direction in any of them, thankfully.

A bit after La Greve, I entered a long narrow valley, a gorge, really, of the Romanche River. The road was just above the water and the white water sang to me the entire time. Equally amazing was all the waterfalls on both sides of the cliff faces. I stopped counting, though not taking pictures, after 12. It was an amazing coda to the climbing, the mountains, and the tunnels.

The Romanche flows into a reservoir that has a 900 meter tunnel above it. I was concerned about this long bit of dark narrowness. But, again, there were no cars and it was slightly downhill and it was over in a couple minutes. Just after I stopped at the exit, a huge truck and several cars wooshed past. My luck was holding.

Steve’s main route variant was just after the barrage (dam). It required me to climb up the side of the cliff and ride along the top. When I got to the turn-off, I realized that I didn’t have another 1000 feet of climbing in me and continued on the main road.

This road was cut out of the cliff with a series of cement blocks the only thing between anyone on the road and sure death in the water hundreds of feet below. When trucks came by (now with increasing frequency), I pulled off the road. At one point huge gusts of wind blew up the canyon and panic stopped hoping not to get blown off the road.

There were more scary tunnels to survive. In the last one a car came up behind me just as I was exiting and I thought I was a goner. But, nothing happened and I continued on my way.

At the bottom of the gorge, I was on a long, straight road (dead into a headwind) that went directly to Bourg d’Oisans. The fabulous peak visuals continued and I took more photos.

My hosts for the night were Fred and Vèro and their engaging 2 year old daughter Charlene who live above the little town. They moved there a month ago when Fred scored a job with the local economic association. Vèro is a nurse who is just starting to look for work. They took 9 months off to ride around Southeast Asia and New Zealand and are restarting their lives back in France. I was entranced by Charlene as she spoke her high-pitched French while pointing to pictures in her book. I smiled and kept answering “tres bien” and Merci, along with other appropriate sounds in both English and Italian.

After dinner (a homemade spinach quiche) we talked about bike touring in SE Asia (where hotels rent by the hour) and their experiences. I went to bed after Vèro retuned from putting Charlene to sleep.

Vèro and Charlene have returned from their day and it is a good time to stop writing.

Last edited by raybo; 05-27-19 at 10:27 PM.
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Old 05-27-19, 11:24 PM
lead on, macduff!
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an epic day and one for the books. thank you for transporting me into the alps. someday...

continued posts, happy trails and best wishes.
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Old 05-28-19, 07:28 AM
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Originally Posted by raybo View Post
After dinner (a homemade spinach quiche) we talked about bike touring in SE Asia (where hotels rent by the hour) and their experiences.
Some hotels rent by the hour, most don't, at least in the 4 SE Asian countries I've toured in. I stayed in a love hotel once in Laos when nothing else was available. Love hotels are found in many places in the world where unmarried offspring often continue to live with their extended family. I've seen quite a few love hotels in Latin America. Here is one in Mexico. This place cost 100 pesos (about US$5) for 2 hours.
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Old 05-28-19, 07:42 AM
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Very cool, thanks for sharing that. 👍 I'd love to get over there, but I'll need to win the lottery first, lol. 😁
I have a pretty good idea though, been in the Rockies for a couple years now, I think. I'm rehabbing bad knees, so do a lot more walking on the uphills than most folks probably do. But even that is very beneficial to the health, in a few ways. 😎
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Old 05-30-19, 07:24 AM
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good description of riding in mountains, and certainly evoked memories for me of going up quiet passes in the Pyrenees under those avalanche roof things with the view out the side.
I know riding in mountains is not for everyone, but I have really grown to love it, and your writing gives a good impression of both the challenges and the pleasures of it.
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